Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

H.G. Wells thought it was silly and dumb and a step backward for science fiction. American critics of its day found its dramatics hackneyed and soulless. Fritz Lang himself disowned it some years later, displeased with its fascistic overtones and the bare nursery-rhyme quality of the story. But Metropolis remains the key film of early cinema, of sci-fi cinema in general, and really of the idea of wonder and awe as projected to a viewing audience. It culminates the Weimar days of fervent creativity among the Expressionist directors at Ufa; its oddball, art deco production design, infatuation with bigness and skyscrapers, and its communication of futuristic industrialism render it both an unmistakable product of the 1920s and allow it to transcend its era as a fascinating artifact. The rhythmic movements Lang gets from his cast of “workers” are chilling in their hint of dehumanization but also stunningly beautiful, even erotic. Metropolis remains a magnificent sight to behold now because we arguably can’t possibly catch up with its unique conflation of the past and future — and its sense of spectacle that has never stopped communicating and inspiring down through the decades.

The critics are all correct in part, of course; the story is essentially nonsense, the tired and well-trodden ground of dime paperbacks taken to a mythological level. A ruthless industrialist inspires rebellion in his son, who wishes to improve the conditions in which his employees work and tries to become a liaison between “the head and the heart”; from there, we get much ado about robot women, pleasure gardens, nightclubs, detectives and mad scientists. It all makes more sense when you’re wrapped up in it than afterward. The literal illustration of machines of capitalism breaking down is striking enough to make this an influential film — but what makes it sing, what makes it the fruition of so much and the beginning of more, is the robust and mighty imagery Lang generates, which seems eerier and more believable than the majority of what we see in modern effects pictures. More pertinently, Lang is simply so many leaps and bounds as a director above most anyone else that any shortcomings in Metropolis are invisible to the majority of us; his shadows tell the story. Those immense figures of technology and majesty, more alarming than even D.W. Griffith’s Wall of Babylon, tell even more of it.

Metropolis thus remains one of the most breathtaking things you can see on a screen. The script is what it is, contrived and kind of suspiciously, innocently capitalist, but Lang’s imagination elevates it to art. One is struck by how it manages to be so many things at once: a balletic visual exhibition, a wildly evocative effects picture, a moral science fiction quandary, a horror film, and a delightfully surreal parade of bizarro fun — the twisting, mischievous robot counterpart introduced of Maria (Brigitte Helm) is still one of the most wonderfully inexplicable moments of human performance in any film. While not outright ignoring what the movie’s really about, Helm cackles and dances and glares like she’s the only one in on the real truth here. That sense of life buried under plot mechanics is the kind of thing that makes a film more than a story, more like an uncorrupted act of communication.

So many things that are now cliched here nevertheless seem bold and new in this context as though it were still 1927 — the sinister lab, for instance, must have haunted James Whale’s dreams — but that’s less interesting than the way Lang visually complements the bold-strokes idealism of the silly plot: the lights of the city falling on a contemplative Joh in his office building tell us more than any of the title cards (those with dialogue, at least; some of the exposition cards are among the best ever put together). Of course, Lang’s discomfort with the picture is easy to understand. In addition to the appropriation of the film by Goebbels and the Nazi party (it was written by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, who became a Nazi some years hence which prompted their divorce and Lang’s exit to America), there is the degree to which the film has been butchered and tattered and torn apart nearly constantly since its premiere. Bit by bit, it’s finally become possible to see most of Lang’s original cut after years of Giorgio Moroder midnight movie cuts and various lengthy reconstructions with stills in place of certain missing scenes.

It survives — it always had — in every subsequent science fiction film, and many films that have nothing to do with the genre. (See the climax of Hitchcock’s Blackmail for an example of the influence of Lang upon an entirely different kind of movie.) We’re lucky to be able to see it, to revel in its ageless special effects, and to be caught up and captivated in pure cinema. For that’s the real essence here — one could argue that it’s too long, but it stays exciting all the way through to the finale — and as a story it may not function at all on paper or even as narrative, but as one watches it and experiences it, it’s as real and sweeping as can be imagined: a filmed dream of the highest order. As with fellow Ufa castoff Murnau’s Sunrise, its almost drunken cinematic genius only grows more galvanizing with each repeated viewing.

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